Thursday, December 06, 2012
This post will analyze Saul Steinberg's "Twenty Americans," a picture which at first glance appears merely as a mildly amusing cartoon, but the longer one looks the deeper it gets.
It's a simple arrangement of four rows of five small portraits each. The top row contains no human beings -- all four of the "people" there (as well as the bird) are symbols, or icons which represent the country the picture is about. Of the fifteen remaining figures, 11 are human (three women, eight men); there are also an animal, a modified cartoon character, an inanimate object (snowman), and a thing whose identity is indeterminable.
At the top, Uncle Sam on the far left is paired with a native American consort. On the other end, the American eagle and Santa Claus form another pair, indicated by the coordination of the tassels on their hats. The eagle is graduating from something, signaling that Steinberg saw the time in which he was living as transitional (like any other time). Santa Claus is not a uniquely American icon, but this one is definitely American, although the colors on his chest are Xmas colors. Lady Liberty, between the two pairs, anchors the composition of the uppermost quintet.
The second row begins with portraits of "Mr. and Mrs. America," both collages composed on graph paper, devoid of personality and possessing only the biological attributes of humanity. This is how Steinberg saw most Americans, the majority of whom reside in cities or suburbs. Next to them is the artist's self-portrait, like the married couple presented in completely neutral terms. Steinberg chooses to hide behind a boxy, cardboard-like image and reveal nothing of himself, which is very much like him. The animal on his left might be one of his beloved cats, but is more likely a Doberman pinscher belonging to the cop, who wears a riot helmet with visor. The two of them are another couple, this one representing the nascent police state the US was becoming in 1975.
Things get "curiouser and curiouser" in the third row, beginning with a figure which may or may not be human. He's a gangster, but whether he's an image from a 1940's "Noir" film or a person who thinks of himself that way can't be determined. He's accompanied by a very socially-oriented woman with big hair and enormous glasses, very much an urban type. The middle of this composition within a composition is an inscrutable black cowboy, and next to him an astronaut dwarfed by his space suit, which is topped with one of the two American flags in this picture. Next to the astronaut is a scary figure which might be a ghost, spirit, golem, or zombie. What it is can't be determined; we only know it's not human.
The bottom row starts with a radically-modified image of Mickey Mouse, a character Steinberg was never comfortable with, and next to him the artist's comment on immigration (he was an immigrant himself). An Arab man is wearing an American-style suit, but he is American, not Saudi, for the picture is called "Twenty Americans," not "19 Americans and an Arab." Sex in all its glory, captured in a few quick strokes of the artist's Rapidograph, anchors the bottom row as an armless young woman with big hair, big eyes, a big hat, big boobs, and big thighs, all proudly displayed. Next to her is a hippie sort of chap, possibly drinking a soda and wearing the picture's second American flag on the left sleeve of his denim jacket. Finally, on the far right, Frosty the Snowman, whose sad, frozen expression tells us as little as possible.
During his lifetime Steinberg was ignored by many "serious" critics as a mere cartoonist, and characterized by others as a "commercial" artist. Since his death in 1999, his reputation and influence have grown greater every year, and his work is an endorsement of Robert Crumb's maxim that we should ignore the art snobs, with their talk of "high art, 'Cause it's just lines on paper, folks."